News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Press Secretary on Trial in the Briefing Room - New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 - It is I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who is under indictment in the C.I.A. leak case. And it is Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, who remains under investigation. But it is Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, whose credibility is already on trial amid the rough justice of the briefing room.

More than two years ago, Mr. McClellan did what press secretaries are paid to do: He vigorously defended the president's men - specifically, Mr. Libby, Mr. Rove and Elliott Abrams, a national security aide who was never implicated in the case - against speculation that they had a hand in the disclosure of the identity of a Central Intelligence Agency officer.

"They're good individuals, they're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved," Mr. McClellan said at his televised briefing on Oct. 7, 2003, one of several instances in which he denied that Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby were responsible for the leak.

As events have unfolded and the grand jury has heard testimony that both Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove had conversations with journalists that touched on the identity of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, Mr. McClellan's reputation has been left dangling in the glare of the television lights.

Though Mr. Libby has not been convicted of charges that he lied in the investigation and was not accused of leaking the agent's identity, and Mr. Rove has not been charged with any wrongdoing, Mr. McClellan's broad assurance that they were "not involved" now seems, based on what is known publicly about the case, to have been misleading if not downright false.

Under a barrage of sometimes angry questions from a press corps that feels it was lied to, he has been unwilling or unable to acknowledge that his previous statements are, to use a phrase famously invoked by a predecessor, inoperative. Yet he has offered no defense of them either, and has instead appealed to the better instincts of his journalistic inquisitors, a risky strategy in the midst of a criminal inquiry that has reached into the top ranks of the White House, but perhaps the only one available to him.

"I'm very confident in the relationship that we have in this room, and the trust that has been established between us," he said at his daily briefing on Monday, in response to questions from David Gregory of NBC News about whether his credibility with reporters and the public was in doubt.

Mr. McClellan said he was constrained from responding more fully because the investigation continues and because Mr. Libby now faces trial, and that "it's not a question of whether or not I'd like to talk more about this."

The outlines of his most logical defense - that he was misled by Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove and was relying on their assurances in stating that they had not been involved - seem clear. But whether he can keep the problem from dogging him and the White House in the meantime remains less clear.

It is possible that any statements made by Mr. Libby to Mr. McClellan asserting that he was not involved would be of interest to the special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who accused Mr. Libby of a pattern of obscuring his role in the matter. Mr. Fitzgerald could also be interested in any similar statements made by Mr. Rove to Mr. McClellan.

Mr. McClellan has been criticized by Democrats as a mouthpiece for an administration that fails to level with the American public, and a number of his other statements regarding the leak investigation have come under scrutiny.

"If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration," he said on Sept. 29, 2003, speaking of how Mr. Bush would deal with any official found to have played a role in leaking classified information - a definition that some Democrats say could now be applied to Mr. Rove.

"Is redemption available to everyone in Washington today? Absolutely yes," said Joe Lockhart, who was President Bill Clinton's spokesman during much of the Monica Lewinsky affair. "It's that kind of town. But any press secretary caught in this particular bind needs to find a way to demonstrate that they can simultaneously serve both masters, the press and the president. Scott McClellan can do it, but it's hard."

Among other things, for Mr. McClellan to state openly that he was misled would put him publicly at odds with Mr. Rove, whose power in the White House and the Republican Party remains immense, not to mention Mr. Libby, who was Mr. Cheney's alter ego until resigning after his indictment on Friday.

Mr. McClellan's plight is illustrative of a broader issue that has left the entire White House off balance as the leak investigation has progressed. The case is almost never discussed openly among senior officials. Those who have been questioned by the prosecutor have apparently not shared their testimony with others, leaving senior officials guessing at where the case is heading.

It is unclear to anyone except Mr. Bush's very inner circle, if to them, how much the president knows about the investigation, what he was told by Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby and what role Mr. Cheney played in the events.

Mr. McClellan took over as press secretary from Ari Fleischer on July 15, 2003, the day after Ms. Wilson's identity was disclosed by the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak. A member of a prominent Texas political family, he was viewed by many reporters when he took the job as genial and straightforward but difficult to knock off the White House's talking points.

Although many White House reporters have grown increasingly frustrated with what they consider the lack of hard information that Mr. McClellan is willing to provide at briefings, there is little personal animus toward him. Mr. Gregory of NBC, one of his most dogged tormentors when the cameras are on, said on CNBC's "Hardball" on Monday night that Mr. McClellan still had a "sterling" reputation.


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